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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #69       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications        April 14, 1998
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's Note
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          Communing with a Condor
          Move Along, Now!
          When Work Disappears
          Improving Productivity -- with Horses
          How Computers May Promote IRS Reform
    *** Langdon Winner Introduces His New Column
          Watch Out for `Tech Knowledge Revue'
    *** Who Said That?
    *** About this newsletter

    What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE

    "NETFUTURE is without doubt the most incisively reasoned critical voice about the role of computers in our lives."

    (For the identity of the speaker, who pursues issues
    in the design of research instrumentation, see "Who Said That?" below.)

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    *** Editor's Note

    I'm extremely pleased to announce that we will be graced in the future by contributions from Langdon Winner. Currently Professor of Political Science in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Winner has been praised as "the leading academic on the politics of technology" (Wall Street Journal). Two of his books are now recognized classics: Autonomous Technology, a study of the technology-out-of-control theme in modern social thought, and The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. He has over a hundred scholarly articles to his name.

    A sometime rock critic (nobody, after all, is perfect), Winner was contributing editor at Rolling Stone in the late 1960s and early 1970s and has contributed articles on rock and roll to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and The Encylopaedia Britannica. He is currently working on a book about the politics of design in the contexts of engineering, architecture and political society.

    You will find an introductory letter from Winner below. Please consider forwarding this issue, or Winner's letter (along with the concluding subscription information) to those who might have an interest in his work.


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    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Communing with a Condor

    In The Spell of the Sensuous David Abram tells of sitting on a boulder jutting out from a cliff in the Himalayas. "It was a ringing blue Himalayan day, clear as a bell", and two lammergeier condors sailed the air currents between neighboring, snow-covered peaks. A sleight-of-hand artist, Abram took out a silver coin to perform a simple hand exercise as he rested.
    I noticed that one of the two condors in the distance had swerved away from its partner and was now floating over the valley, wings outstretched. As I watched it grow larger, I realized, with some delight, that it was heading in my general direction; I stopped rolling the coin and stared. Yet just then the lammergeier halted in its flight, motionless for a moment against the peaks, then swerved around and headed back toward its partner in the distance. Disappointed, I took up the coin and began rolling it along my knuckles once again, its silver surface catching the sunlight as it turned, reflecting the rays back into the sky. Instantly, the condor swung out from its path and began soaring back in a wide arc. Once again, I watched its shape grow larger. As the great size of the bird became apparent, I felt my skin begin to crawl and come alive, like a swarm of bees all in motion, and a humming grew loud in my ears. The coin continued rolling along my fingers. The creature loomed larger, and larger still, until, suddenly, it was there -- an immense silhouette hovering just above my head, huge wing feathers rustling ever so slightly as they mastered the breeze. My fingers were frozen, unable to move; the coin dropped out of my hand. And then I felt myself stripped naked by an alien gaze infinitely more lucid and precise than my own. I do not know for how long I was transfixed, only that I felt the air streaming past naked knees and heard the wind whispering in my feathers long after the Visitor had departed.
    As he sank himself into the indigenous cultures of Indonesia and Nepal, where he traded magic with the local shamans, Abram found himself gaining unexpected powers to attract and communicate with animals. Much of this seemed owing to strengthened powers of perception and attention. But when he returned to the United States, resuming his study of "programmed" behaviors, genetic "codes", and all the rest, his powers, strong at first, rapidly faded. Over time, squirrels stopped bounding down trees at his call.
    Indeed, the more I spoke about other animals, the less possible it became to speak to them .... As the expressive and sentient landscape slowly faded behind my more exclusively human concerns, threatening to become little more than an illusion or fantasy, I began to feel -- particularly in my chest and abdomen -- as though I were being cut off from vital sources of nourishment. I was indeed reacclimating to my own culture, becoming more attuned to its styles of discourse and interaction, yet my bodily senses seemed to be losing their acuteness, becoming less awake to subtle changes and patterns.
    Abram learned, through discipline, to counter this loss, at least to a degree, through a conscious strengthening of his senses. But what about the rest of us, who don't even know what we've lost?
    Meanwhile, for those worried that their children are not acclimating to the culture fast enough, there's a whole new software industry leaping to their aid. Aimed at the pre-toddler and toddler crowd and founded on the proposition that, since television has done so much for children's powers of attention and observation, the computer ought to do even better, this software comes under names like "Jumpstart Baby". According to news reports, the market is booming, with many parents fearing their kids will be left behind.

    Personally, I think these lost-in-space parents ought to be sentenced to a restorative term sitting on a rock in the Himalayas. As to the pandering purveyors of this software, they might better be chained to the rock, with a condor gnawing their livers for a century or two.

    (Thanks to Steve Lamont, Stuart Cohen -- and others whose names I've misplaced -- for passing along the toddler software news stories.)

    Move Along, Now!

    Pico Iyer, writing about the on-the-go world of frequent business travelers, tells us
    There is a putting green in Palm Springs Airport ... and a casino in Amsterdam's Schiphol. You can go bowling in Frankfurt Airport, or do your dry cleaning, or take in a racy movie. A small guidebook has been written on how to live while between planes at O'Hare. We're almost accustomed now to the fact that airports, with their discos, dental clinics, in-house wineries and 120-store Sky Malls, are often as compendious as cities. (Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is larger than Manhattan.) But that sometimes obscures how many cities, set up for speed and convenience, and catering to a swirl of tongues and tribes from somewhere very distant, now look more and more like airports, with their food courts, chain stores and signs for Pizza Hut Express. The practical assumption is that everyone's passing through. (New York Times Magazine, Mar. 8, 1998)
    "Everyone's passing through" -- the slogan captures the challenge of our age wonderfully well. Certainly it might qualify as the official motto of the Net. In nearly all justifications of our huge social investment in the Net, efficiency figures centrally, and whenever efficiency (instead of the thing we are wanting to be more efficient about) comes to the fore in this way, we can be sure that the real message is: "Pass on through -- quickly!"

    A theme of the nineteenth-century rhetoric of technology was that technology would annihilate time and space. It did. And so today, "we are learning what it means to have no time and no place" (Albert Borgmann).

    But speeding up the ticks of the clock is not what annihilates time. The annihilation occurs when our immersion in what transpires between the ticks gives way to a dominant awareness of the ticks themselves as measurable -- and therefore contentless -- intervals. (You can only measure and count the intervals by standing outside them.) Our failure to sink ourselves in the moment is the decisive thing; given that failure, it hardly matters whether we speed up or slow down the clock ticks -- they are no longer counting anything of substance anyway.

    When, on the other hand, you engage the content of time -- whether a kiss, or a sudden insight, or the delight of a child, or the menacing gestures of a torturer -- measurements lose their fixity: an hour may be like a day, and a day like an hour.

    Our skills at measuring time are valuable. We need the ability to separate ourselves from the moment, to view it abstractly from without, and to count it. We couldn't be fully human without that capacity, since it allows us to become objective observers, conscious of ourselves, instead of simply losing ourselves in whatever is going on.

    But when the separation becomes primary, when we can no longer return deeply and intimately to what is going on -- when our entire thought as designers of the technological society is how to make the passing through more efficient, with no counterbalancing thought for the depth and texture and enduring value of the moments and places we're traversing so efficiently -- then we are indeed annihilating time and space.

    When all our time is being saved, none of it is left for experiencing.

    (Thanks to Michael Corriveau.)

    When Work Disappears

    Isaac Asimov foresaw a time when "robots will leave to human beings the tasks that are intrinsically human, such as sports, entertainment, scientific research". It reminds one of that Universal Answer to every objection about computers replacing human functions inappropriately: "The computer is doing the grunt work, liberating people to spend their time on more important tasks."

    But a funny thing happens on the way to liberation. To begin with, the programmer says, "Let me relieve you of all that tedious addition and multiplication." Nice. But now, as the computer effortlessly produces a rising tide of numbers, managing them becomes ever more tedious. So, of course, the programmer offers some simple analytic tools whose profligate output begins to make the next level of analysis seem burdensome .... And on up the ladder it goes, all the way to strategic planning and beyond.

    I seriously doubt that those who espouse the Universal Answer have ever attempted to frame a principled view of the distinction between "grunt work" and "more important tasks". I also doubt that they have spent much time reflecting upon the ambiguities of labor-saving devices. It is true that a spade eliminates the drudgery of digging compared to a stick, and a plow improves on the spade. And yet, it is also true that when drudgery-eliminating tools gained the ascendancy during the Industrial Revolution, much human labor became unprecedentedly tedious and oppressive. So the Universal Answer leaves us with some questions.

    Apparently, however, questions that were too subtle for us during the industrial age remain too subtle during the computer age. Not many people are asking, for example, how the computer promotes a reconceptualization of our work along ever more automatic, abstract, and quantified lines. It is not just that (in the case of numerical processing) the computer increases the flow of numbers and of logical operations based on the numbers; as a result it may also change the character of the work. It encourages us to redefine our activities in abstract and quantitative terms, thereby preparing the way for the next level of computerization.

    We do need numbers, and computerization as such is not a bad thing. But until we rediscover that only the human being can raise work from drudgery to a dignified undertaking, and until we rediscover what the inner, qualitative content of dignified work consists of (whether we are wielding a stick or a spade or a plow or a computer) -- until then we will not be elevating our work when we develop new, labor-saving tools. We will simply be destroying work, and ourselves with it.

    Try telling a child who has found a promising bit of mud that digging with a stick is drudgery. It can become drudgery, of course; but a lot of it has to do with balance, and with how well we manage to bring our own meanings and values to the task.

    So there is no absolute distinction between grunt work and meaningful work. Counting the pebbles in my driveway could prove meaningful, depending, for example, on the constellation of mathematical and physical interests I brought to the task. But some jobs more easily lend themselves to purposeful pursuit than others.

    The question is whether we are allowing the computer to alter the focus and context and qualitative texture of work in such a way that it becomes harder, rather than easier, to find a human dimension in whatever work remains to us.

    Improving Productivity -- with Horses

    In northeast Ohio most of the logging operators have to scramble hard, looking for timber to harvest. But Charlie Fisher logs with horses and, like other horse loggers, he has more timber offered to him than he can handle. Wendell Berry explains why in the Winter, 1997 issue of Orion.

    Ten years ago Fisher helped found Valley Veneer, a logging and sawmill operation near Andover, Ohio, which employs some twenty people. The local community has warmly embraced the company, and for good reason. As an investment in the community, Valley Veneer provides a local market for local timber. The capital investment for horse teams, unlike heavy equipment, supports the local economy. The company deals with the only locally owned bank (which has offered more help than is needed). Perhaps most importantly, the landowners with timber to harvest know that Fisher's company will not simply cut and run. Every piece of land is a long-term investment.

    The rootedness of the business, as Berry points out, has one especially important consequence: the permanent connection to the neighborhood gives everyone involved a stake in preserving the local forest's productivity. "A local forest economy, if it is complex enough, will tend almost naturally to act as a conserver of the local forest ecology."

    The horses themselves have a lot to do with the conservation. Berry surveyed a stand of hard and soft maples that Fisher had logged three years previously.

    Very few of the remaining trees had been damaged by trees felled during the logging. I saw not a single tree that had been barked by a skidded log. The skid trails had almost completely healed over; there was no sign of erosion.
    Then there is the selection of timber. Fisher takes only some of the trees -- especially diseased or inferior ones -- and leaves behind trees of all ages to continue producing wood. (You recognize the importance of this when you compare a year's growth on a four-inch-diameter tree with a year's growth on a fourteen-inch tree.) Fisher took 160 trees off one twenty-acre tract, writing the owner a check for $23,000. He said the tract could be logged again in ten years, with more trees harvested and more trees left than at the first cutting. Similar land, if clear-cut, might require fifty or a hundred years before yielding another harvest.

    Now, a story like this can produce either of two reactions in us. We can take it as a bit of likable whimsy, fit to add a touch of nostalgia and local color to the evening newscast. Or we can open ourselves to the possibility of having our thinking re-shaped. After all, from what standpoint can the prevailing culture see itself in a revealing light, if not from a position outside the prevailing culture?

    I doubt whether a fertile critique of technology can be offered, except from the side of nature. Those most inclined to utopian visions of technological transformation tend, I suspect, to be those whose lives are most completely lived out within a technological cocoon. But the living earth has a way of bringing us back ... to earth.

    If you really want to maximize the value of a complex ecosystem such as a woodlot, what is less surprising than that the sophisticated employment of living creatures, with all their limitations, should work best? Their limitations, after all, will probably be the right limitations. Any technological enhancements compatible with these creatures are much more likely to prove healthy for the larger environment than devices dreamed up to perform mighty and efficient works in the abstract.

    This reminds me, tangentially, of the various efforts to construct artificial human environments such as the "Biosphere" in the American Southwest. We can, of course, get more and more subtle in our constructions, and there may be no better context for some types of learning. But eventually the growing subtlety of our physical, aesthetic, and spiritual creations may bring us to the startling realization that we are traveling -- we must travel -- in a circle. As biologist David Ehrenfeld puts it in Beginning Again: People and Nature in the New Millennium:

    If we could create a truly complete life-support system to sustain us in space, then we would have created the earth.
    So why not take a short-cut and begin with earth? The danger of cyberspace is that, becoming enamored of our artifices, we may forget the earth (smiling tolerantly all the while at stories about horse logging). How, then, will we find our way back around the circle and home again?

    How Computers May Promote IRS Reform

    According to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rossotti, failure to get a handle quickly on the agency's Year 2000 Problem could prove disastrous. "The whole financial system of the United States will come to a halt. It's very serious."

    I've wondered for some time whether, just possibly, an imminent meltdown might prove the one thing capable of forcing drastic tax code simplification down Congressional throats. The idea would be to allow the IRS to survive the crisis for a year or two by shuffling papers -- fewer and simpler ones.

    In a 1986 interview, Joseph Weizenbaum responded to the belief that computers came along "just in time" to save institutions such as banking, welfare, and credit reporting from collapsing under their own weight. But this, he claimed, misses the point.

    These institutions ... may have needed to be transformed, perhaps in revolutionary ways. I believe the computer has not worked to revolutionize the world as we know it so much as to shore up existing, decaying systems. (West, January 19, 1986)
    My imaginary tax reform complements Weizenbaum's thesis. If the introduction of computers can serve to postpone reforms, the destruction of those computers may be just what's needed to invite reforms. An unintended benefit of technological failure, you might say.


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    *** Langdon Winner Introduces His New Column

    Dear Friends,

    Beginning this May my commentaries will appear in NETFUTURE in a regular series entitled "Tech Knowledge Revue". This is a wholly new enterprise for me, not a re-creation of anything I've done anywhere else. My hope is to write brief reports, essays, interviews, and musings that cover technology, social issues and politics on a very broad scale. While the frequency of the pieces will vary, I hope to contribute one every two months or so.

    My reasons for setting up shop here (and not in a pulp and paper venue) have to do with the kinds of freedom, immediacy, flexibility, and good will that Steve Talbott's newsletter makes available. In its relatively brief existence, NETFUTURE has attracted a broadly based, thoughtful readership, a group of people I greatly respect. The publication offers a refreshing range of ideas and viewpoints, ones not commonly found on-line or elsewhere. I want to thank Steve for his kind invitation to join him in stirring the pot!

    According to the dictionary, a "revue" is a show "consisting of skits, songs, and dances, often satirizing current events, trends and personalities". That seems about right. If nothing else, "Tech Knowledge Revue" will provide occasional relief from the sterile, self-serving puffery that passes for "technology journalism" nowadays. At least that's my hope.

    Upcoming commentaries will likely include:

    For those who want to read something in the meantime, several recent pieces can be found on my Web page including:

    "Cyberlibertarian Myths and Prospects for Community"

    "The Automatic Professor Machine" (an interview with entrepreneur L.C. Winner, C.E.O. of Educational Smart Hardware Alma Mater, Inc., and inventor of the APM, "most important breakthrough in educational technology since the syllogism")

    The URL for these is: http://www.rpi.edu/~winner.

    It turns out that Steve Talbott and I are neighbors in the Hudson River Valley, home to a long tradition of technology critics from Melville to Mumford and several contemporary writers and activists. More frequently now than before, we'll be getting together at the local bagel cafe to scope out the ideas, issues, movements, latest atrocities, and hopeful developments we find noteworthy. I hope you'll enjoy your seat at the table.

    Yours truly,

    Langdon Winner

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    *** Who Said That?

    Peter J. Kindlmann is Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering at Yale, and also the founder and president of Congruent Design, Inc. At Yale he founded a university-wide laboratory for the design of research instrumentation, which he directed from 1965 to 1979. He has since collaborated in research projects in robotics, laser physics, computer engineering, and medicine. He is author of many professional papers and owner of various patents.

    At the Yale School of Management, Professor Kindlmann co-teaches a course he helped design, called "Information Technology for Managers". He generously offers that he does his best in the course to communicate perspectives learned from NETFUTURE. As for me, I found the quotation in his signature file, taken from Jose Ortega y Gasset, a perfect motto for NETFUTURE:

    Today I am more than ever frightened. I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer.

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1998 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .

    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:


    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #69 :: April 14, 1998

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